A restaurant with two faces

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When I arrived at the Little Country Gentleman the next night, the tables had been moved across the dining room, right in front of the kitchen, to give diners a front-row view of the culinary action. The lights were dimmed. Only two tables were occupied.

Nowhere to be found for breakfast, Randolph was impossible to miss at dinner; in ripped jeans, a white T-shirt and a red backward-turned baseball cap, he ran the kitchen with low-key authority. When a song came on that he liked — such as the bluegrass ballad "Wagon Wheel" by Old Crow Medicine Show — Randolph cranked the volume and continued to slave away.

Dining options are deliberately limited at the Little Country Gentleman. There's a $62, six-course fixed-price menu that includes six categories: lighter first and second courses, a pasta dish, a seafood dish, a meat dish and a dessert. The diner chooses one of each.

The Grand Tasting is the $92 option I had spied the previous morning; it offers two dishes from each of the six categories, plus another five or six items that Randolph called "the more adventurous stuff."

"It's whatever we're getting from the farmers and whatever we're excited about," he said. "If we find a really cool cheese, maybe we'll put that on a plate and send it out. Sometimes the best thing to do is leave something alone and let people experience it."

More recently, the Little Country Gentleman has offered a la carte ordering, allowing diners to choose a handful of the fixed-price options. But in the name of journalism and gluttony, I opted for the Grand Tasting and settled in for what I was promised would be a three-hour experience.

There was no need to waste time with a complimentary breadbasket, and the Little Country Gentleman did no such thing. Instead, the courses trickled out in small, refined and exact portions, usually occupying just a fraction of their dishes. It began with red and yellow beets with a muscular sheep's-milk cheese from Vermont. Then came dehydrated berries with yogurt and creme fraiche, a cast-iron dish of supple, juicy tomatoes and a bit of cucumber ice to clear the palate.

Those little dishes were assembled meticulously, but the way to eat them seemed to be with gusto, attacking the elements in one swoop to savor the mingling of their flavors.

On it came, increasingly complex and daring: cured fish roe, pig's head with corn puree and fermented jalapenos, pan-seared skate, sweetbreads with blackberries and a strozzapreti pasta with snails and Parmesan. Then a surprise: an intermezzo cocktail of gin, plum vinegar and club soda adorned with a lemon peel. It was sweet, tart and refreshing, gearing me up for a final push that Randolph apparently also needed at the halfway mark.

"OK, boys, let's finish strong with this (grand tasting menu)," he announced to his kitchen.

A scallop swimming in yellow corn soup. Rabbit sausage stuffed in rabbit loin wrapped in bacon. Corned pig's heart with anchovy, rye crisps, blackberry jam and a house-made, 55-day-old sauerkraut.

"Our version of a Reuben," my waiter said.

Fullness loomed, but it didn't matter. A celery board arrived, then a spoonful of gnocchi with a lamb-kidney-and-liver pate, lamb's hearts that had arrived that day from a local farmer, a Cornish hen (getting full), braised beef cheek with broccoli florets (fuller still), a funky cheese course, then a chocolate mousse and finally, cheesecake.

I believe my sentiment at that last forkful was, "Garrrrgggggggghhhh." Next was, "See you in the morning for the veggie skillet."


If you go

Half and Half (8135 Maryland Ave., Clayton, Mo.; 314-725-0719) is open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Friday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Little Country Gentleman is open 6 to 10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. Reservations are suggested for dinner. More information: halfandhalfstl.com and littlecountrygentleman.com.

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